Thursday, July 19, 2012

Lessons Learned

I have been a writer, which is to say, a storyteller, all of my life. I've been writing and mailing out stories since 1966. I am also a teacher, though I didn't realize that until I was an adult. The quarter century immediately prior to my decision to write full-time was devoted to teaching in public schools, community colleges, and the community. Both writing and teaching are, I think, matters of temperament. Certainly no one does either for the money.

For a decade or so I've had the idea of combining my two interests and teaching creative writing at the university level. The practical obstacle to what seems a natural move is a piece of paper. Specifically, my lack of a terminal degree in writing – a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing – means I have not established my bona fides as one worthy of teaching the craft at a university. Daunting were the facts earning an MFA-CW would require at least two years and would cost a good deal more than I'd make as a writer during that time. Wal-Mart's decision to no longer hire senior citizens as door greeters caused me to reevaluate my options vis-à-vis late-life careers. Valerie, CFO of the Killiany family, helped by pointing out a Stafford Education Loan would push the problem of cost out to 2015 – plenty of time for me to either earn the money or declare bankruptsy. The clincher was a careful analysis of the calendar. It seems that in two years I'll be sixty-one whether or not I spent the time working toward something I want. So I decided to go back to school.

The first MFA program I considered was that offered by UNC-Wilmington – mostly because it's right down the street. I interviewed with a gatekeeper who looked over the body of work I'd brought in – or rather, looked at the covers of my Star Trek and MechWarrior books – and without a glance at my transcript suggested I try a few undergraduate classes before undertaking an MFA. Just to see if I was "ready for serious writing."
I scouted the internet for programs that had minimal residency requirements or were completely online. Found an online program, researched to make sure the degree it awarded was honored by more traditional universities (VERY important), and enrolled.

My first 600-level course was in the English department; straightforward academia with no delusions of art. The Pedagogy of Composition class spent a lot of time on the elements of rhetoric: ethos (character), logos (reason), and pathos (emotion) – though eros (porn) was never mentioned – purposes and methods of composition, and agreeing thought itself is not possible without language. (Which is silly; language slows thought down. Ask any math major.) Pretty heavy going for an old man who hadn't been in school for a few decades, but I managed; even enjoyed myself.

I admit I had some trepidation going in to my second class: a seminar on creative writing. The academics didn't bother me: reading about writing, reading short fiction by various authors and Butler's Kindred – one of my favorite novels. I had no problem with weekly writing exercises and was looking forward to producing a short story. What worried me was the fact we students were to critique each other's writing exercises and short stories. Not to mention the final assignment is to rewrite our short story to reflect what we've learned from the others' critiques. Though I've taken part in professional workshops – training in specific markets and techniques – folks who know me know I don't think much of writers' groups in which peers analyze each other's work. (Francine Prose once imagined a group steeped in the argot of writing groups telling Kafka they couldn't connect with the idea of a man turning into a beetle and recommending he rethink whose story he was telling and what was at stake.) Plus ... Do I really need to reiterate how I feel about rewriting?

Six weeks in I'm not ready to reverse my position on writing groups or peer critiques, but I'm less hostile than I was. My fellow students are an eclectic lot – people who are educators, business owners and managers, serve in the military or are unemployed – from all over the place (including two overseas students for whom English is their second language). Skill levels range from high-school-esque to I-hope-I-write-like-that-when-I-grow-up. And critiquing/being critiqued has not been the purgatory I expected. Going into detail would betray confidentiality, but I will tell you that the least proficient writer makes the most useful comments and has the most telling insights into the work of others. I'm thinking future editor.
However, though my feelings toward peer-group critiques are mellowing, I don't think this is the most important – or useful – component of the class. Those are, in ascending order:
The structure of the class; the calendar of short and long deadlines helps reinforce the habit of discipline (something freelancers are known to struggle with).
The weekly writing exercises (from Kiteley's The 3 A.M. Epiphany), which provide us with needed challenges and practice (Professional writers should practice at least as much as professional pianists – a fact writers tend to resist. We like to tell folks we're working on our novel, not practicing POV shifts.)
Finally, and most enlighteningly for me, reading established classics. Chekhov, Faulkner, Kafka, O'Connor, Pynchon, Tolstoy, Twain – writers I either rarely read or have not read since, well, college. I'm pretty good about keeping up with current writers in the genres that interest me as markets – I watch trends and note tropes handled well – that's good business. But the classics became classic for a reason; and great writers were great writers before literature courses glommed on to them. Time spent reading their works is not only rewarding for the reader, it's instructive – and challenging – for the writer.


Ty Johnston said...

Kevin, sorry to hear about your experience at UNC-Wilmington. I've heard good things about the program in Chapel Hill, but I guess old prejudices die hard.

But congratulations on finding a class and group you enjoy working with. And good luck on teaching in a few years.

Liane Spicer said...

I have seen too many profoundly asinine critiques (even by my critique partner who is an MFA-CW student) to be a fan of the peer critique, but it does help sharpen one's skills in refuting nonsense - once one gets past the urge to throttle, that is...

Reading those neglected (by me) classics would be the highlight of the course for me too. Recently caught up on Oscar Wilde and a couple others for a different kind of course and it was pure bliss.

Charles Gramlich said...

I considered going back for an MFA as well, but ended up designing a writing course in my own discipline, psychology, albeit nonfiction. I still talk about fiction in it at times. It's not that much fun to teach though, perhaps because the subject is so close to my heart and the students don't care nearly as much as I do.

Lynn Emery said...

Congrats on starting down a new and exciting path! I hope you're not too often vexed by snits like that academic. I bow in admiration that you went back to school. I'm going to have nightmares about being in school now LOL. I hated being in school, but it was a means to an end. So I sucked it up and made it through high school, undergrad, grad. I salute you, my friend.

G. B. Miller said...

I still have a bias against writers with MFA's, mostly because their stories are so interchangeable and formuliac that they make terribly uninteresting reading, but I do wish you the best of luck in getting that MFA degree.

Here's to hoping that you stand out from everyone else who has MFA and that your writing remains fresh and interesting.

KeVin K. said...

Ty - UNC-CH does have an excellent program, as does UNC-Goldsboro; UNCW's is good, just a bit exclusionary.

Liane - Yes, a reminder of why we fell in love with storytelling to begin with.

Charles - Briefly considered the same tactic, but there's no easy route with my education degree. Closest I could find was teaching teachers to teach elementary students to write. Can't see that working out fo rme.

Lynn - Thanks. Haven't been on this side of the lectern in decades; odd sensation. I'll keep folks posted on the journey.

GB - I think that an MFA neither increases nor decreases a writer's talent; there's no way to determine how those MFA writers you mention would have written without the MFA. Also young writers, such as your typical newly-minted MFA, tend to be heavily influenced by their mentors and models - their own voice emerges with time. I've been writing for a couple of decades, and with personal authorial heroes like Frederick Faust, Robert Heinlein, and Kris Rusch, it's doubtful I'm as malleable.